Paul Mooney remembers discovering the raw political power of the n-word. As a young comic honing his craft during the ’60s — a time when stand-up was undergoing a revitalizing transformation from punchlines to monologues — Mooney and his better-known best friend, one Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III, seized control of America’s ugliest racial epithet and wielded it as a comic weapon.
“When Richard and I use it on stage in front of an audience with both white and black folks in it, we are saying something that white people can’t,” Mooney says in his memoir Black Is the New White (Simon Spotlight, $24.95). “It’s forbidden to them, but allowed to us. Ain’t too many things like that. It’s liberating.”
For decades now, Mooney has been doing the seemingly impossible: turning racism into comic fodder. Casual observers will recognize him as the comedian who renounced the n-word after Michael Richards’ racist onstage freakout in 2006 (even urging all African-American performers to delete it from their vocabulary), as the creator of Homey D. Clown for In Living Color and Negrodamus for Chappelle’s Show, or even as the actor who played Sam Cooke in The Buddy Holly Story. Those paying closer attention know that Mooney was Richard Pryor’s writer, mentor, confidante, and designated driver, and that he was the comedy brain trust behind some of Pryor’s best bits.
Born in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1941, Mooney moved to Oakland in his youth and was raised by his grandmother — a big, proud, loving woman who slept with a hammer for protection. Compared to Pryor, who was raised among pimps and whores and other ne’er-do-wells, Mooney had a stable upbringing and developed into a brash, cocky, ambitious teetotaler; Pryor, of course, was a legendary self-loathing drug addict.
Mooney and Pryor met in 1968 and were close friends until Pryor’s 2005 death. Mooney’s place in the pantheon of American stand-up comics is assured, but his contributions to the Pryor legend have gone mostly uncredited and unknown. In Black Is the New White Mooney not only lays claim to his part of the story, he also illuminates an under-told chapter in black Hollywood history: the period of the sixties and seventies when a surge of African American talent was met by the half-hearted embrace of a Hollywood that had not yet figured out how to exploit it. Mooney spoke with PopMatters by phone from his home in Harlem.
You and Richard Pryor were very different in many ways. Why did you bond so well?
Opposites attract. It’s something I can’t really put my finger on. It was just supposed to be. And Richard and I really had nothing to do with it. It just had to be, like old souls. Richard and I somewhere had been together as friends before. It’s like finding each other. It’s something you really can’t make sense of. It’s instinctual; it’s just the way it is.
The story of your first meeting, before you became friends, is hilarious.
I was living in a cheap apartment on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. A bunch of people would come and stay there with us, because nobody had any money, and we let them all sleep on the floor and in the bathtub or wherever. I was having a party, and a friend of my sister’s, who was dancing at the Whiskey a Go-Go, had dated Richard and brought him to the apartment. This was during that whole era of [1969 comedy] Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice when everybody was sleeping with everybody. So Richard came in and said, “Let’s all get into bed and have an orgy.” And I threw him out.
You write about rubbing elbows with white celebrities during the late sixties, with Steve McQueen and other big stars slumming in South Los Angeles at legendary clubs like Maverick’s Flat. The Hollywood infatuation with black culture was already under way.
People don’t remember all this stuff going on back then. Janis Joplin fucking was crazy about Jimi Hendrix. She was in love with him. There was all this shit going on, Tammy Terrell, the Temptations, Motown, and everyone in Hollywood into this and that. Raquel Welch was coming out to Maverick’s, everybody came out to these fucking clubs, it was crazy. Then you had the reverse of that happening at the Candy Store [a Beverly Hills discotheque and celebrity haunt in the late 1960s], which was a white club that we integrated. And Richard and I used to go to all these private clubs all the time. It was crazy, it was so wild. And before our time, Marilyn Monroe would come out to the black area too. A black designer took her somewhere and they fired him… Because she was out there, and they would say, “Oh look, she’s out there with them niggers.”
This racist stuff is crazy. White people are always trying to write their bullshit out of history, because they don’t want people to know how evil they were. I mean, how do you sit somewhere and show how evil you are? Wrong is wrong, whether it’s 1801 or 1901 or 2001. It doesn’t change what’s right and what’s wrong. People don’t like to see it written down. It’s too ugly. Tennessee Williams knew about the South, but he would clean it up and lie about it. He knew the women, he knew the racial thing, he knew everything. He knew the incest, the child abuse, all that shit. He had to hide it because those white folks would get angry. A Streetcar Named Desire: trust me when I tell you that Marlon Brando’s character was a Creole, he was a black man. You see that movie or read that book, you’ll see it in between the lines. All Southerners know. Northerners won’t pick up on it, but we knew right away what it was about.
It’s ironic that during those years, when you and Pryor and so many other black actors were trying to break through, Hollywood still practicing de facto segregation. When it came to African American stars, it was Sidney Poitier or nothing.
When they were making black films in the ’60s and the ’70s, everyone knew their place, if you get my drift. You understand? Everyone knew the rules and everyone knew their place. Everyone knew what to say. They had the written rules in Hollywood film, and the unwritten rules. That’s why when Sidney Poitier slapped that white man in In the Heat of the Night, the theater went crazy, because black people had never seen a black person slap a white person in a film. Did you see In the Heat of the Night?
Of course. That scene you’re talking about is a milestone in movie history.
That scene wasn’t in the script, you know. That was Sidney’s reaction. Sidney pimp-slapped him. That was not in the script; Sidney was not supposed to hit him back. He slapped Sidney, and Sidney’s reaction was to slap him back. And the theater went fucking crazy. They’d never seen no shit like that. They went fucking crazy. I remember.
Because like I was telling you about the rules and the unwritten rules — now they don’t know what to do, because there are no rules now. You have biracial people, and you have all this stuff going on now, they don’t know what to do, so now they get crazy. Like that army movie with that what’s-his-name playing somebody in blackface [Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder], now they get nutty. They don’t know what to do anymore. When you watch TV, I didn’t know black people were that happy. I had no idea they were that happy. I’m trying to find them.
Poitier was the standard bearer for African-Americans in popular culture, but it was something of a myth. And as soon as Hollywood figured that out, he was suddenly obsolete.
He was the perfect Negro. But white people are not very loyal to their perfect Negroes or to their house Negroes. As soon as they’re not “in”, they’ll drop them like a hot potato. They have no further use for them. It’s a very interesting phenomenon to watch. I remember when Calvin Lockhart died [in 2007], all the press was about the movies he did in Hollywood, like Melinda, Cotton Comes to Harlem. But the press never mentioned that he was a big international star. His biggest movie was Joanna which came out of Europe. They never even mentioned it.
Lockhart could have been Poitier’s successor, but his career was over before it really began.
It was just arrogance. I knew Calvin real well. He came from those islands, and he had that arrogance. Like Sidney. Calvin was super-arrogant. And being black, Hollywood couldn’t deal with that.
Even today, some consider your comedy controversial or offensive because you talk so bluntly about race and racism. But you’ve been doing that since the seventies, and it must have really made people uncomfortable then.
Now people say whatever they want to say. White people and Black people. They’re bold. But they weren’t that bold back then. That’s why they hated Lenny Bruce. They couldn’t stand him. In the movies and all that, they say, “Lenny, we love you, we love you.” That’s bullshit. That’s not true. Those white folks didn’t like him. The same way they didn’t like Jane Fonda when I was hanging out with her — you know, I was in Fuck The Army with her [FTA was an improv troupe that performed in protest of the Vietnam war in the early seventies; other members included Fonda and Peter Boyle]. They hated her. Just like the hippies. Those white folks did not like those hippies. I remember. Those white folks did not like those hippies, because the hippies were talking about love and peace and let’s all together. They were not having that. And of course with the free love, the prostitutes wanted to kill those hippie girls. [Laughs.] I’m serious. They wanted to fuck them up. They hated them. They would chase them off the street.
People may know that you wrote for “In Living Color” and Dave Chappelle, but you were writing for TV much earlier, and were one of the first black writers to break into television and films during the early 1970s.
I was like E.T. There were no black comedy writers. It was either a Jew who was married to somebody black, or who went to school with those people.
You and Pryor wrote a few episodes of Sanford and Son, but institutional racism was so strong that not even Redd Fox and Norman Lear could get you hired beyond that. It’s ironic to look back at the credits for that show — a black cast, and most episodes were written by Jewish guys.
All the shows were like that. Richard would bring me in and I was like E.T. to these people. It was a trip. If my last name was Goldberg, let me tell you — NBC, ABC, Saturday Night Live, none of them would have ever let me out of that studio. They would have never let me go. No way they would have let me go work with Richard.
You also wrote screenplays, including a sequel to the seminal Blaxploitation film The Mack, although it was never produced. And you did uncredited, behind-the-scenes, script doctoring work.
That was always brought to me. Richard would always have me rewrite shit. I rewrote the first episode of Fridays [ABC’s answer to Saturday Night Live, which ran 1980-82]. That’s why the first one’s so funny. The rest of them are not as funny. But the point is that stuff was always brought to me from somewhere. It always came from out of the blue. I would never solicit it; it would just come to me because my reputation preceded me. And then, my association with Richard and through my dealings with other people, that’s how it would happen. In Hollywood it’s about controlling. If they can control you they like you, but if you speak up and you have an opinion, have a brain, it turns them off.
Based on yours and every other account, Pryor consumed massive amounts of drugs for several decades. Yet he worked constantly and was often brilliant.
No matter whatever happened to Richard, he always kept his sense of humor. I always told everybody that if they wanted to get Richard to do anything they had to play on his sense of humor. Even in the end, he didn’t lose his sense of humor; he held onto it. It was very precious to him. No matter what was going on, that sense of humor was always there.
You say he was a junkie first, genius second. Was he self-destructive, or do you think it was a reaction to how Hollywood tried to box him in, force him to be something he wasn’t?
It’s somewhere in between. And see, Richard just loved those drugs. He loved them. His passion for those drugs was as strong as his passion for his creativity. Hendrix was the same way. So was Janis Joplin. They all eat out of the same bowl.
The drug scene was your “nightmare in the flesh”, yet you stuck around Pryor and his druggie friends for years. How did it not affect you?
Because of my grandmother, because I worshipped my grandmother. Because I think like some old, southern black woman. That’s my mentality, because of the way she molded me. My grandmother mentally created me. If it wasn’t for her, I probably would have been somewhere in some home, in a straightjacket.
Were you accused of being an enabler?
I always told Richard how bad drugs were. I always talked to him about it. I never told him, “Do drugs, have fun, it’s the best.” When Richard was trying to get on the wagon, he was on it because I was there telling him, “Go home, don’t go over there. Don’t do this. You’d better stay on the wagon, you’re doing real good, you look good, just stay that way.” I always would tell him that. I wouldn’t say, “Go get your drugs.” That’s why his grandmother loved me so much. And she didn’t like nobody.
Pryor’s personality could turn on a dime. You call it the “werewolf”, that instant transformation to drug-induced paranoia. Yet the werewolf never turned on you.
Listen, I knew when to get out of there. Richard would do a lot of things that was crazed, but by the way he talked and the way he would act, I knew what it was coming from. I knew what it was. That’s not Richard. The werewolf is the werewolf; the werewolf is not the person. The person is somewhere else. I considered the source. I knew what it was coming from. And whenever Richard was clear-headed, and Richard was who Richard was, he was like a child. He was like some little boy — his feelings and his reactions. And I mean, when Richard had love for you, he had love for you. But you could insult him very easily, and then he would turn off. And when he was doing drugs he was unpredictable. You didn’t know whether he would show up or not.
Pryor was in a few good movies and a lot of bad ones, especially in the 1980s. But he was a very good actor when he wanted to be.
Oh yeah. Richard was excellent, an Academy Award-level performer, he just got some bad scripts. Richard was a good actor, beyond good. In Lady Sings the Blues he originally had a bit part, and every day it would get bigger because Richard was so good. Richard was very interesting, and he’s under-rated in a lot of ways. A lot of times you can’t see the forest for the trees. Richard was under-rated. Eddie Murphy is under-rated. People think Eddie Murphy was all that when he was at his hottest, but Eddie Murphy is really fucking brilliant and they really don’t give him the credit. Like I told Eddie when he was playing all these parts, I said, “Why don’t you play the dog too? You done played everybody in the movie but the dog.” He laughed for like 15 minutes.
One of his best performances is in Blue Collar (1978), which was a tense production by all accounts. Maybe he needed a tough director like Paul Schrader to push him to his potential.
All Richard needed was somebody that he respected. The people that he respected, he’d give 150 percent to. If he didn’t respect them, he wouldn’t give anything, but if he respected them he would come up to their level. Richard knew who he was and what he was about, he really did. He knew how talented he was. Whenever he was cooking, it was a feeling. It’s like James Dean, he auditioned for Lee Strasberg and he got in. And when Strasberg critiqued him, James Dean walked away and never went back, because he knew that he was better than Strasberg.
You’ve had a lot of influence on the use of the “n-word” in comedy. Pryor was among the first to use it in his act, nearly 40 years ago, and it was a big part of your act for years as well. Now you’ve come full circle, urging other performers to ban it.
See, the thing about that word is, where it first started coming from, when white people said “nigger” it meant “lazy.” It was the slave who wouldn’t work. That’s where it was all conjured up from, “you lazy nigger,” and this kind of stuff. The word lived through so many generations and it changed in so many ways, and then Richard and I got hold of it, Dick Gregory got hold of it. It got to be so crazy. And then Richard went to Africa and I couldn’t see the forest for the trees when he came back. [Mooney is referring to Pryor’s trip to Africa in the 1980s, after which Pryor pledged never to use “nigger” in his act again.] And then this Michael Richards from Seinfeld and all this other stuff.
When I look at it, it was like God putting all this stuff on the table. It was meant to be, you know? All of it. The burying it, bringing it back to life, not burying it, not saying it, then saying it. And then the kids saying it, then the Asians saying it, and the young white kids saying it. It’s just very interesting what the word has gone through. It reminds me of the way the vampire movies started with Bela Lugosi, and the whole vampire thing has changed to the “New Moon” thing, the youth with the sex. It’s the same kind of trip, you know? Birth, rebirth, showing up, hiding. It’s all real interesting.
I was in Texas recently and someone was really getting on my case about it — it’s in this new special I have on Showtime, Paul Mooney: It’s the End of the World. They said to me, “you haven’t said the word.” So I told him, “no, but I didn’t say I wouldn’t say it backwards.” So then I said, “what’s up reggin?” I said “reggin” a couple times. It was very funny. You know, it’s just like I say in the book. The bottom line is: I’m a comedian. And if I’m on death row, I’m gonna have something funny to say before you axe me. I’m a comic.
There were later periods when you and Pryor split apart for a while. What happened?
I was always around, because Richard would always call me, he’d always get into trouble, he’d always send for me. Even if I wasn’t right up there in his face, he’s always eventually come back and call me. Like when Freddie Prinze was shooting guns up at his house, or when he was arguing with somebody, he’d call me at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning. It was crazy. He’d always send for me, no matter where he was.
You could have sent him a bill.
I could have sent the studio a bill, but I was blinded by my love for Richard. I would do anything for him. It wasn’t about the money. It’s not the way I know Hollywood now. If I could go back, I’d fix all of them. They wouldn’t have enough money to pay me for all that stuff.
Relatively few people are aware of certain things you’ve done, like your material for Pryor’s Saturday Night Live gig. You wrote the job-interview sketch, where Chevy Chase and Pryor play a word-association game with racial slurs. That’s classic, groundbreaking TV comedy.
It’s TV history. Of course. I’ve flipped on people trying to claim credit for that. It pisses me the fuck off. People copy, recycle my shit. They do it to me all the time, but I understand it. When something is funny, it’s funny. Uncle Miltie, who I loved and who loved me, Milton Berle said, “I know a good joke when I steal one.” He said it best. Is that not brilliant? “I know a good joke when I steal one!” [Laughs]
Yeah, Saturday Night Live. Hey, let me tell you. That was just meant to be. Chevy Chase was following me around, just begging me to write something for him, and saying, “Richard hates me! Oh, please!” And they were all so fucking high. I should have turned them all in. [Laughs] That sketch, the job interview, was actually about me, because the Saturday Night Live people had cross-examined me because as I said before there was no such thing as a black comedy writer at that time. And Richard brought me in to write for him, but first wanted to talk to me to find out what I was all about. And that’s how that came about.
You also wrote the sketch about the white bigot whose family all turns into blacks during dinner – each person gets up to leave the table for a moment, and when they come back, they’re black.
Yeah, he kept talking that racist shit and his whole family turned black. That was very fucking funny. And you know, since then they cut stuff out. When we did that show, there was this whole thing about “who killed Kennedy?” And you remember, they ruined Mort Sahl’s career for trying to figure that out. We had some white man stand up when the show first opened and say, “I know who shot Kennedy.” And then we had someone shoot him. And then Chevy goes, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” That’s very funny, and that was mine too. I told Richard, “All these white folks want to know who shot Kennedy. Let’s have some white man stand up and say he knows, and then let’s shoot him.”
I don’t care if it’s morbid or dark, if it has a humor to it, I don’t give a fuck how insulting, Richard always loved that. He fucking loved it. Like I told him all the time, “You know that Dinah Shore is black? You know she had a black baby? She sued her parents.” [Mooney is referring to a 1950s rumor that Shore gave birth to an African-American child, then sued her mother for not telling her she was biracial.] All this stuff. I told him all this, and you know when he got on Dinah Shore’s show — it’s on tape, too — “You know you’re black!” He told her that! Yes! Is that not funny? He was a trip. I’d tell him something, and he’d be high, and he’d go out there and tell her that. “Why don’t you just confess? Come on, Dinah!”
Apart from telling another side of the Richard Pryor story, what was your motivation for writing the book? It seems an effort to set the record straight — to tell everyone who doesn’t know you, or your work, that you’ve been there all along, behind the scenes, and here’s what you contributed.
The book wrote itself. Richard made me promise never to write anything about him while he was alive. When he was dead, he said I could write anything I wanted. This book is just about clearing the record straight. And let me tell you something, I’ve found that we all live in the same world, and human beings — they are watching. They just have selective memory and selective choices. From The Buddy Holly Story to everything else I’ve done, the world saw all this stuff. They know who I am. They’ll just pretend they don’t know, but they know. And now that we have the Internet and all that instant shit, they know instantly. The check is not in the mail, the stagecoach is not coming. Everyone pretends like they live somewhere on a farm. It’s all bullshit. They know about shit instantly. I went to the bank yesterday to put some money in my cousin’s account, and being old school, I said to the lady, “let me know when she’s able to get it.” She said to me, “it’s done.” It wasn’t two fucking seconds later. So I don’t want to hear that stuff about what people don’t know. They all know everything about everything. It has nothing to do with me and my ego, it has to do with the reality of where we’re living. There’s no cash-register mentality anymore, where you don’t know who stole the money. They know about everything, ’cause of them fucking computers. Your gas bill, your mama’s pussy, they know about everything. [Laughs] It’s not like it was.